Read Remembering Carmen Online
Authors: Nicholas Murray
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C A R M E N
~ Nicholas Murray ~
~ one ~
Deftly, like an actress who has practised her moves in a clattering morning rehearsal room, the latest one slips from his bed, trailing her nakedness in her wake.
Seconds later, he hears the rush of water from the shower, imagines her in the steam, foresees the inexorable steps in the grooming sequence, traces in anticipation the rapid smile â perhaps even the concession of a rapid kiss â and then the swift, accurately paced departure. The door's click. The footfall on the stair. The consequent silence.
In this way he has passed the weeks, the months, since Carmen.
It may be that love comes once and once only, preceded by rehearsal, followed by regret. How snugly, thinks Christopher, I fit into this oh-too-neat paradigm. The years before Carmen were unsettled and unsatisfactory. Since her departure, since the onset of her absence, he has felt himself to be living in the aftermath of his own life, an odd survivor in the interstices of old routine. She has been the ghost flitting unnoticed in the background of these casual, unconsidered intimacies. She has left her legacy which he measures out like an old skinflint, hoping that the diminished remnant will outlast him as a symbolic residue â nugatory, almost weightless â to be turned over admiringly when he is gone.
Carmen, he says, this is what you have done to me: made me your reluctant memorialist. What happened to our reckless disregard for time and place? At what point did we abandon our exalted indifference?
A clear recollection: the terrace of a white hotel facing the sea. He cannot escape the compulsion to begin at the beginning. But is this the beginning? They quarrelled, even about this.
They sit (in Christopher's disputed version) in separate chairs, facing a low wall in whose cavity is planted an aromatic hedge. On the table in front of his cane seat (upholstered with loose calico cushions) a basket rests on the white linen cloth. Wrapped in a soft napkin are a warm bread roll, a flaky croissant. He mixes a cup of strong coffee with boiled milk from a plump little jug. He hacks unsuccessfully at one of the rectangular lozenges of butter which slides about in a flat dish, its hardness assured by two tiny cubes of ice. He knows now that she will have been waiting, calmly, for the sun to soften her ration. She will have been less inept than he at spooning apricot preserve on to the exposed fibre of a torn croissant. The crisp linen will not have been soiled with a variety of clumsy stains.
It is important to establish which of them spoke first. “Typical male,” was her response to his proposal â in the course of their later dissection of this contested scene â that he had been the first to break the morning silence with some vacuous pleasantry. Their tables are identical. Christopher has brought only a key attached to a heavy brass ball. Carmen is unfolding the new day's
. Perhaps he says something like this (in English, which from an overheard prior interchange with the waiter, he has established to be her native language):
“Let's hope we've seen the last of the rain.”
Christopher gestures to the glorious brightness of the morning sun, which glows with promise in a rinsed, blue sky. He calls on it with the uncertain aplomb of a barrister summoning a witness in whom he has no confidence. Carmen is wearing dark sunglasses which she chooses not to remove. She turns in his direction, saying nothing at first. It is as if she is trying to establish whether such a banal reflection merits the effort of a reply. Then she removes her glasses, placing them in the hollow of the newspaper in her lap. Christopher thinks that much of their subsequent career together is predicated in that brief exchange.
“That's certainly how it looks.”
Perhaps, even then, he had misgivings, sensing in her tone a sort of sly mockery, an exquisitely refined contempt. But these falterings do not last. He looks at her carefully, struck by the way in which she holds herself, proudly, confident of her ungainsayable beauty, but without arrogance. She balances the consciousness that she has the power to turn heads with an easy carelessness. That is what he comes to love in her: her gift of prodigality. She has more than this to spare. She lacks his desperate habit of trying always to conjure the most from the least. His ambition. Her skin is pale, in contrast to the tanned skin all around her, and her short black hair (which reminds him of an old-fashioned photograph of Mary Quant) is neatly sculpted. She wears a simple but almost certainly expensive white dress which exposes her slender arms. Everything about her suggests immaculate grooming and perfect self-control. By contrast, he feels himself to be a dishevelled Bohemian, an English lout on the Mediterranean coast. She is pleased, in retrospect, when he uses this formulation in conversation with her.
Later, he produces a photograph. Intended to clinch the matter (the prosecuting barrister's humour restored) the strategy backfires. Christopher has been the photographer, and therefore he is not present in the scene. But the picture is of her and the snap is in his possession. No further questions. But there turn out to be further questions from Carmen. She fires them off, languidly (they are to do with certain unrecognised details on the terrace, a preposterous and intrusive terracotta pot with swathes of embossed vineleaves, certain minor implausibilities in the
mise en scÃ¨ne
) but when he tries to respond she waves a hand. She is bored. It is easier to agree with him. Perhaps then he will go away.
He now thinks: I stayed, Carmen. I stayed. It was you who would leave, in your own good time.
Christopher wonders if his rival was there all the time, like the swirl of ectoplasm in a sepia photograph of an Edwardian seance, flourished in evidence of the existence of the paranormal. A blur of movement. A presence. Not much of a conversationalist, the ineffable Jimmy, his affable monica suggestive of camaraderie, ribbed white sailor's jerseys in the fug of the saloon bar, the clink and slam of dimpled pint pots. The ear-splitting bellow of the male guffaw. Christopher is of the opinion now that she was always disposed to these manly men. She looked on them with contempt but they seemed to satisfy some need in her. A need to mock. She loved to watch their antics. Their vanity played straight into her hands.
Christopher thinks: I am portraying a calculating bitch, a smirking ice-maiden with savage, glittering eyes of cold sapphire, but you were none of these, my love. My Absence. You had everything that I had ever wanted and more. When you opened out there was nothing you could not give. Your generosity had the power to terrify me. With what could I match it? In what coin could I ever repay you? But you did not reduce me. You never did that. I was strong in your strength. We were a partnership, you and I. We were an âitem'&sot; â the word we whooped to in a hotel bar in Lincolnshire, leaving its perpetrator (a lank local estate agent) tapping his car-keys on the counter as if they held the open sesame to this cave of laughter from which he was barred.
Could that figure in the photograph have been Jimmy, in disguise? Wrapped in the white togs of an expensive waiter, smarmy and belated, capturing crumbs with a folded napkin, whisking off the detritus of
, setting up the goods for the next round of sluggards who had emerged blinking on to the terrace like nocturnal animals rudely disturbed? Unlikely. He was no prankster. He moved lumberingly, like an elephant approaching its stack of logs in a forest clearing, confident that his usual assets â the set of attributes known to teen magazine editors as âhunk', the sleepy, come-sleep-with-me blue eyes, the blond mop, the delicious languor that waits for insect food to drop unasked into its brimming pool â would see him through. They had always done so in the past.
Christopher thinks now that Jimmy was pre-ordained. Perhaps he had been standing there, just beyond the white margin of the photographic print, all the time. They had simply not noticed. It was his job to call time, to step out of the shadows and say enough is enough. You have had your time in the sun. All debts must be paid. The party is over.
But Christopher reflects: it is not over, Carmen. I am not over you.
Carmen considers that her father is to blame. He was a skilled electrician with a taste for collecting playing cards and for light opera. He built himself a plywood bunker along one wall of the living room in which were stacked the vinyl discs of his collection. As children, Carmen and her siblings ran their cars along, or (she was a conventional girl) brought their dolls to interrogate, the white painted plinth on which this intimidating rack of potential sound was raised. The rippled moulding, thickly coated with white gloss paint, sank into the plum-coloured carpet like an abandoned monument sunk in the circumambient sand. Sometimes, when she returned with her mother from exhausting Saturday afternoon assaults on the city department stores, they would open the front door to a wall of sound â a high soprano warbling out her synthetic passion â at a time when other men would be tense before the football game, a light alloy cylinder of weak lager crunched in their excited fist. This spectacle drove her â later â towards the most rebarbative versions of the twentieth century avant-garde string quartet.
And so it was, that the pink, dribbling thing was held up, stowed away to await the arrival of its father (who was lighting a vast industrial chicken shed in East Lancashire), at which moment it was produced by the plump nuns, swathed in folds of white linen. “Carmen!” he called down the echoing corridors of the nursing home. And that was that. That was her christening. Carmen's mother, as in all things, acquiesced.
Later, she was passed into the care of another branch of the peak-bonneted sisterhood who taught her to trill, once a year: “A happy, holy, feast-day, Reverend Mother.” Then she left, gladly, their pious groves, read philosophy, fell in with bad company, which was good for her, went off the rails (briefly) and was rescued by a man who was far too old but whose money she took a relish in spending, sometimes with his consent. Foolishly allowing the word “marriage” to slip from the corner of his mouth during one particularly vivid drinking-session, he lost her for good. She came to London where she prospered as a journalist in the young women's magazine sector. She had a knack for delivering what the loose-spending
wanted to read, two weeks after she should have realised that she did not. When a mild feminism was permissible, she did mild feminism. When feminism went out, at the turn of the century, it went out of her copy. She was quick, adaptable, and delivered the goods. It didn't matter what the goods were as long as they were the goods and were wanted at the time of writing. Carmen was less successful â speaking now of her private life â in those areas about which the magazine â and its star contributor â regularly gave out advice, stricture, encouragement, viz. Relationships. Indeed she was lousy. So inept that one morning she clicked on a cheap-airline website and booked herself a week (longer vacations by this time of the new, enlightened century were frowned upon) to Quelquepart-sur-Mer. On her own. One morning at breakfast some idiot started talking to her about the weather.
They had nothing in common. Christopher came to think that this was the secret of their eventual success. Had they been perfectly compatible they should soon have grown bored. Instead they had leisure to discover their dissonances, their gaps, the rich raw material of their quarrels. After that meeting on the terrace (it was his last morning, her first) they both assumed that they would never see each other again. But he met her, four weeks later, in the restaurant queue at the National Film Theatre. She was holding up her tray to receive a plate of mottled quiche and a tumbler of chilled carrot juice. He was bidding for the steak-and-kidney pie. She looked down at his tray with a glance of exhausted compassion. They both spoke at once, which allowed them to laugh, releasing the pressure which had built up unbearably. They shared a table where Christopher did most of the talking. Carmen would spear another fragment of that sickly quiche, hold it on the tip of her cream-coloured plastic fork, as if daring it to confront those perfect white teeth, then look at him with the languid, resentful detachment of someone who now considers it a mistake to have agreed to visit the zoo. He watched her gestures intently while he babbled. Eventually, she agreed to speak, to give the most economical account possible of her subsequent stay at the Hotel Magnifique. She was tactful enough to avoid all allusion to handsome Jimmy. In truth, he never established â after much forensic activity â whether he had been anything more than a disconnected presence in her life in the course of that week.